Over the last few years, there's been a ridiculous rise in a bizarre form of anti-Silicon Valley populism, in which people are encouraged to hate successful internet companies for... being successful. Usually, when you dig into the details, the attacks on the firms are a combination of general fear of "bigness," hatred/jealousy of success and a fundamental misunderstanding of economics. Now, let's be clear: big companies with too much power do have a rather long history of bad behavior and companies should be watched carefully if they abuse their position. But the anti-internet populism seems incredibly misplaced, especially given that the companies they're attacking are often companies that have clearly improved the lives of those doing the attacking. I'm always worried about old "enabling" companies becoming the new gatekeepers
, but I'm also confident in the ability of a brand new generation of enablers to undermine business models of the last generation of internet giants as well -- especially if they start making moves that actually harm the public.
But, it seems, this general hatred of Silicon Valley is being taken to nearly parodic levels with two new articles, one in Salon and one in Slate, both of which call for "nationalizing" some of the internet's most popular companies. First up, we have Richard "RJ" Eskow saying that we should nationalize Amazon and Google
because the original internet was publicly funded, and thus, apparently, everything built after that should be owned by the federal government.
Big Tech was created with publicly developed technology. No matter how they spin it, these corporations were not created in garages or by inventive entrepreneurs. The core technology behind them is the Internet, a publicly funded platform for which they pay no users’ fee. In fact, they do everything they can to avoid paying their taxes.
Big Tech’s use of public technology means that it operates in a technological “commons,” which they are using solely for its own gain, without regard for the public interest. Meanwhile the United States government devotes considerable taxpayer resource to protecting them – from patent infringement, cyberterrorism and other external threats.
Of course, based on this absolutely idiotic argument, you could argue that we should nationalize just about every business out there. Fedex and UPS? Why they make use of the federal highway system, which was publicly funded. So, "no matter how they spin it," the "core infrastructure" behind them was "publicly funded." Ditto for the entire US automobile industry (though, to be fair, we kinda came pretty close to "nationalizing" them a few years back). How about Wall Street? I mean, look at it: it's entirely dependent on federal currency
. Clearly: should be nationalized. In fact, I'm having trouble coming up with a business that shouldn't be nationalized under these conditions. Almost every business relies on some aspect of publicly-funded infrastructure.
From there, Eskow insists that these companies are "abusive," which again is apparently a reason why they should be nationalized (he doesn't explain how the two are connected or why he believes nationalized companies would be less prone to abusive power -- because he can't). But he picks some rather unfortunate examples for "abuse."
The bluntness with which Big Tech firms abuse their monopoly power is striking. Google has said that it will soon begin blocking YouTube videos from popular artists like Radiohead and Adele unless independent record labels sign deals with its upcoming music streaming service (at what are presumably disadvantageous rates). Amazon’s war on publishers like Hachette is another sign of Big Tech arrogance.
Except, as we've detailed, neither of those stories is even remotely accurate. Artists are not being blocked
from YouTube, they're being offered a better deal
if they want to monetize their videos. Some don't like the terms of that deal, but they can still upload their own videos, just not to the monetized services of YouTube. And the Amazon/Hachette example is not a "war on publishers" so much as it's an attempt to get better prices
for consumers. Apparently, Eskow would like to side with the publishers over the public. Why?
Eskow also finds his "support" in odd places:
Even Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer argued that Google is a “monopoly” whose activities were “worthy of discussion with competition authority.” He should know.
Wait. A company that is being beat left and right by an upstart competitor is complaining that that competitor should be regulated? Gee, that means absolutely nothing
Nowhere in the entire piece does Eskow even attempt to explain how "nationalizing" these firms would actually solve any of these issues. He just insists it would. Apparently he's unaware of how "wonderful" service is from nationalized companies. I'm sure bureaucracies and government controls are just great
for innovation. And, if we're talking about abuse, shall we bring up what happened with the history of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which were "de facto nationalized?"
Eskow also goes on and on about the privacy violations of these companies, but for a deeper discussion on that, we'll flip over to Salon competitor Slate, where Philip Howard has an article about how we should nationalize Facebook
because of that company's long-standing problems on the privacy front:
By “nationalizing Facebook,” I mean public ownership and at least a majority share at first. When nationalizing the company restores the public trust, that controlling interest could be reduced. There are three very good reasons for this drastic step: It could fix the company’s woeful privacy practices, allow the social network to fulfill its true potential for providing social good, and force it to put its valuable data to work on significant social problems.
Let’s start with privacy. Right now, the company violates everybody’s privacy expectations, not to mention privacy laws. It also struggles to respond properly to regulatory requests in different countries. In part, this is because its services are designed to meet the bare minimum of legal expectations in each jurisdiction. When users in Europe request copies of the data Facebook keeps on them, they are sent huge volumes of records. But not every user lives in a jurisdiction that requires such responsiveness from Facebook—U.S. users are out of luck because their regulators don’t ask as many questions as those in the European Union and Canada. Privacy watchdogs consistently complain that the company uses user data in ways they didn't agree to or anticipate. There are suspicions that the company creates shadow profiles of people who aren’t even users but whose names get mentioned by people who are Facebook users.
It's completely reasonable to question Facebook's privacy practices, and its history of arbitrarily changing things and being involved in "creepy" behavior. But, again, there's a massive leap in logic to go from "hey, Facebook isn't very good at protecting your privacy" to "let's hand the company over the to US government." I don't know if Philip Howard has been living under a rock for the past 13 months or so, but if there's one organization that appears to respect your privacy even less
than Facebook, it would be the US government. The very same US government that is actively looking for new ways to spy on as many people as possible. And Howard thinks the approach to "protect" users' privacy from Facebook is to... give all that info directly
to the US government?
In fact, Howard actually argues directly
for how wonderful it would be for the US gov't to be able to snoop through our data to perform "research" on it:
Nationalizing Facebook would allow more resources to go into data mining for public health and social research.
Somehow, he claims that if the company were "nationalized," then there would magically be higher ethical standards to make sure this research is "good" and not "evil." He also has a funny notion whereby if Facebook were nationalized, not only would it be useful in tracking down bad people, but "good" activists that we liked could also be allowed to use pseudonyms, rather than real names. Because that's exactly what we want: the US government picking and choosing which activists are "good."
Having read both of these articles, I'm kind of wondering if they're both a form of satire, mocking the idea of nationalization or even the anti-internet populism we've been seeing lately -- but it looks as if they're both serious, if totally ridiculous.